ArnoutJaspers 16-7-22

NASA’s cosmetic universe is indicative of the spirit of the times

Also enjoy amazing first photos by James Webbspace telescope? It was beautiful again, even more beautiful than the Hubble picturesA space telescope has spoiled us since 1994. But what do we actually see?

At the turn of the century, I was an information officer at the National Nova Institute of Astronomy, and as such once visited the Baltimore headquarters from which the Hubble Space Telescope is operated. There were dozens of scientists and their technical support virtually 24/7, processing the incoming data. A large space telescope works day and night, because the hours of observation in it are too scarce to waste on the sleep of the Earth.

But I was most surprised by the PR department, which employed web and video specialists, graphic artists, animators, scriptwriters as well as information officers, and was of the scale with which I had previously been associated with a Hollywood film studio.

Hubble’s sharp, color images of the universe were unparalleled, and new to the general public, turning just about everything about Hubble into propaganda gold. Oddly enough, the director of the PR department, with whom I spoke that day, seemed rather exhausted. By that time, preparations had already begun for Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Telescope.

The end of the audience’s golden age

What is the problem according to this manager? James Webb will – for scientific reasons indisputably – become an infrared telescope, so it will not provide images that the human eye can use, but only maps in shades of gray, because we cannot see infrared light.

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Expect the golden age of astronomy to end with the shutdown of Hubble. He argued in vain to add an optical camera to the Webb telescope so that the public could at least see something of what Webb was doing. But his request was just categorically rejected, since this interesting camera was scientifically just a weighty. You can’t do that with tax money.

Totally sucked

fast forward About twenty years old: This director may have been a longtime retiree, and the James Webb Telescope delivered its first stunning images of the universe last Tuesday. Hotter than Hubble images. Was that director totally confused at the time? Or was an optical camera integrated into the web then?

Neither. The James Webb Infrared Telescope produces color images entirely invented by the Baltimore Department of Public Relations. Something like this happens: For scientific research, Webb takes different pictures of a part of the sky, each time with a different wavelength of infrared light. Scientists work with the original data, but the PR staff fiddled with assigning the primary (additive) colors to blue, green, and/or red for each wavelength, and then pasting all of those color images separately. The combination gives the most attractive result.

Knowing the Americans a little, there is also a lot of discussion about this and then further refinement. The important goal seems to be that Webb’s images resemble Hubble’s images of the same patch of sky as possible in terms of coloration, so that everyone can be convinced that Webb’s images are better.

random color set

It would not have occurred to the PR manager at the time that black and white photographs that were not sensational enough for public consumption should be creatively coloured. Back then this was still considered fake, apparently nowadays The best exercise. Nor are they secretive about this at NASA either: their specialists told in a video on Our website That a “mix of art and science” is necessary to “pull beauty” out of web images.

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Since the color assignment of the infrared image is essentially arbitrary, I also started playing with the image of the Carina Nebula released by NASA. The attached photos are “real” or “real” like the NASA version.

Even at Hubble’s heyday, the shape of “real” celestial bodies was a problem. Hubble also takes black and white images through different color filters. It’s tuned to get as much scientific information as possible, but because Hubble is primarily an optical telescope, it also has filters in the three primary colors. That’s why you still think Hubble images give us a picture of the universe that we’d see ourselves too if we had super sensitive eyes. Using the James Webb telescope, even this thin line with everyday reality has been broken.

Facts as a semi-finished product

When I spoke to that director, consumer cameras still had rolls of film, and the idea prevailed that the images represented reality. Nowadays, almost everyone considers the pixels of their camera as semi-finished digital products with which you can create the desired image using all kinds of rotating knobs. Selfies are usually cosmetically smoothed out with the Beautify filter. All nature photographers these days enhance the colors and contrast in their images to a level you will never see in nature.

Until recently, NASA clearly stated in the caption to the infrared and ultraviolet color images: false color image. It seems that this is no longer necessary to remain reliable. In the case of astro eye candy This may not cause any harm. The James Webb Telescope is still a wonderful piece of engineering, and when people dream of the majestic beauty of the universe, they are less likely to shoot their neighbors upside down, I hope.

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But it is a hallmark of the zeitgeist: facts as semi-finished products, you can color them all according to your own needs.

science journalist Arnott Jaspers He writes columns and other factual articles for Wynia Week every Saturday. Wynia Week made possible by donors. May we notice you? which can over here. Thank you!

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